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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Santaland Diaries
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie review of Around the World in 80 Days


Max Tachis
Photo by Kevin Berne
Waking up one morning and realizing that he is 33 years old and without a job was bad enough for David Sedaris, but realizing that one actually needs a skill to gain employment was the real kick in the butt for him. ("How come I'd never figured that out?") His low/no-skill opportunities that New York December apparently included walking around Times Square dressed as a taco, a camcorder, or a French fry. He instead settled on applying to the world's largest department store, Macy's Herald Square, as an elf.

His twentysomething day adventure is detailed in his December 23, 1992 NPR "Morning Edition" essay, "Santaland Diaries," giving the now-famous humorist, author and comedian his first big break. A longer version of the essay was adapted to the stage in 1996 by Joe Mantello, entitled The Santaland Diaries. This December, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is presenting the one-man show as its debut holiday offering at the Lohman Theatre, Los Altos Hills, with the as-advertised "darkly funny dose of holiday cheer" running concurrently with its main-stage production at the Lucy Stern Theatre in Palo Alto, Around the World in 80 Days.

Even before he begins as the young David Sedaris, Max Tachis (in his TheatreWorks debut after recently recognized, starring roles at Palo Alto Players and City Lights Theatre) warms up the gathered audience in a pre-act appearance that includes rapping the familiar warnings about phones, exits, and candy wrappers. When he re-enters as David, he goes right into a seventy-minute storytelling where he directly interacts with the soon-to-be-howling audience with facial and vocal expressions ranging from silly and cute to devilish and foul. Frequently making stops at a cart loaded with booze and a six-pack of beer he brings with him on stage (which he consumes as he tells his tale), Max's David confesses along the way, "I have never been a good person ... I have never even been mistaken as a good person."

Maybe that is why he chooses Crumpet as his elf nomenclature, while all the other elves use names like Frosty, Rudolph, or Snowflake. As he relates going through extensive elf training in rooms with no windows and with scores of other elves-to-be (most of whom he describes in rather loser-terms), David complains, "It makes one's mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment." The highlights he relates of his days as an elf tend to feature such events as a mother allowing her son to pee in the fake snow of Santaland and a Santa who is trying to make it with the mothers. Once he figures out that "Santa" is an anagram of "Satan," Crumpet becomes even more inclined to act out the dark sides of elf-dom, something that becomes easier as the days tick down to Christmas and the crowds become bigger and more aggressively impatient. He even begins to tell rowdy kids waiting in line that if you are bad, Santa will not only not bring your toys, he will come to your house and steal things (the TV, toaster, bed linens—everything!).

Max Tachis is hilariously delightful as David/Crumpet. He employs voices ranging through many octaves and facial expressions that at times are boyish in their wide-eyed wonder and at other times close to evil in their evident intent to scare kids (and parents) into behaving. When he brings out a smaller version of himself as a dressed elf (a puppet resembling a "Sesame Street" or Avenue Q star), the humor is ratcheted up several notches as the puppet becomes Crumpet and Max narrates and/or becomes adults, other elves, or kids. Through Max's inventiveness and mastery, Crumpet's puppet (designed by Mark Stys) employs on his sewn face a number of wonderfully expressive postures and countenances, all to the audience's expressed pleasure.

Director Jeffrey Lo ensures that every minute of the seventy is packed with laughs and that the entire show is over before it has hardly begun, so seamlessly do the scenes pass as Crumpet relates his trials and tribulations. He also has clearly given Max Tachis plenty of leeway to add spontaneous touches that keep the narrated essay sparkling through the actor's natural abilities to be on-the-spot funny, punkish, and charming all at the same time.

The scenic design of Christopher Fitzer is a real winner with its big Santa throne consisting of brightly colored candy canes, gingerbread men, and gumdrops. (Audience members are encouraged to come up before and after to get their pictures made.) A forest of lit Christmas trees provides a background along with other unfolding surprises that make the stage an authentic piece of the more massive Santaland that Crumpet describes in detail.

Mia Kumamoto's lighting works well to shine holiday cheer into the scenes while Howard Ho's sound design puts us right in the middle of Macy's with is hustle, bustle, and Christmas crowds full of shopping frantic. Jill C. Bowers has created Crumpet's "work uniform," a colorful mixture of green velvet knickers, candy-cane tights, and "a perky little hat decorated with spangles" (all enough to be OK for Crumpet in Santaland but too embarrassing for him to walk dressed as such through the sports department).

While there is so much still to enjoy in David Sedaris' narrative about his purported real-life experience as a Macy's elf (but one where others' research has subsequently shown to have elements of pure fiction injected) twenty-five years later, some of the details are now dated—even embarrassingly so. Jokes about a dwarf, about kids who have deformities, or about male Santas making groping motions or sexual come-on comments to mothers now do not draw the laughs they may have once. And what by the way is a camcorder? It would be a welcome task, it seems to me, for David Sedaris and Joe Mantello to pull out the script and do some updates before the popular and much-produced piece hits next holiday season on stages across America.

But in the meantime, Max Tachis and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley find enough jewels still embedded in The Santaland Diaries to make it a worthwhile diversion from holiday mall madness.

The Santaland Diaries continues through December 23, 2017, as a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley offering at Lohman Theatre, Foothill College, 12345 S. El Monte Road, Los Alto Hills CA. Tickets are available online at www.theatreworks.org or by calling 650-463-1960.


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